Murphy’s Law says: “Anything that can do wrong… will go wrong.” And never have truer words been said than when it comes to waking up at ungodly hours of the morning to work with pretty models on the beach. It’s the price we pay for being a swimwear photographer. Weather along coastlines can be described as bipolar, even in supposedly warm and tropical destinations. And no matter how much you prepare for the worst, there’s always some new definition of “worst“ waiting to prove you wrong. So let this article serve as a cautionary tale, taught by those who have survived to tell it….
EARLY IS REALLY EARLY
So many young models see the sun rise for the very first time in their lives at one of my beach shoots. Waking up before noon isn’t exactly tops on the to-do list of most pretty girls I’ve worked with.
Shooting at sunrise means getting up really, really, really, really, really early. Three a.m. sounds about right when there’s packing and driving and hair and makeup involved.
(Did I mention the sun rises early? Yes… I did.)
Sadly, too many models I’ve booked over the years fail to show up for the sun rise. But a few clever ones have figured out that a drastic change in their sleep schedule will result in problems. So they come straight from a party or rave, having never slept at all that night. But hey, as long as they’re functional and look good, whatever… right? Hakunna matatta. Hang loose, dude. No rules, just right at the beach I suppose. I dunno…
Lesson learned: Text your models the night before the shoot – and then again in the morning – to make sure they’re going to be awake and at the beach on time. I like to send a cute little text message that says, “Good morning, sunshine!!! :)”
But what I’m really thinking is: I hope you’re still not dreaming of hearts, glitter, unicorns and rainbows right now.
THE FREAKS COME OUT AT NIGHT
Getting to the beach early, and setting up to be ready by sunrise means: being there before sunrise.
In other words, you need to arrive while it’s still night time. All kinds of critters and crazy people come out when the sun goes down, and some won’t leave until you shoo them away with a stick. Or in the case of that hungry raccoon in Fort Lauderdale: a well-aimed shoe did the trick. Not to mention the rats on the beach in Chicago, or the occasional drunken bum in Miami preaching The Good Word in Adam and Eve attire.
College kids love to party all night long, then mellow out on the beach to count stars, or contemplate their navels (or whatever) until the good time wears off. At least they can be fun distractions, even when they’re pestering you about what magazine you work for. Because… you know… if you have a big lens… you must work for a magazine, right? That’s okay. Anyone who thinks i’m cool, is cool with me.
But you can also run into hippy chanting ceremonies that set up right where you need to be shooting. Skinny dippers out for a swim at 4:30 in the morning. Beach combers scanning your gear with a metal detector the moment you walk away. Dog lovers who take their pets off the leash and get offended when you complain their pit bull pooped on your photography set. And of course, sex on the beach is more than just the name of a drink.
But then there’s my favorite of all: the crazy man praising the dawn and raving and yelling utter nonsense, before burying his head in the sand for what seemed far too long to survive the ordeal. These are all very real scenarios I’ve encountered at beach photo shoots over the years. And it’s not for no reason I don’t watch TV any more. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Lesson learned: Find a private beach, if you need privacy.
BEACHES ARE PRETTY (PRETTY DIRTY, THAT IS)
I mentioned this in our companion article, Better Sunrise Swimwear Photography. And I’ll say it again: public beaches can be filthy at 5 am. Unless you love picking up disgusting things with your bare hands, bring a garbage bag. A towel is a good idea as well.
DRESS FOR THE BEACH, AT THE BEACH?
I would laugh, if this weren’t so tragic: sometimes models show up on the beach at 5 am for a 5:15 am start time, dressed in their street clothes. When I remind them they need to change into swimwear, they start looking around and realizing we are on an open beach, with no cover in sight. Beach houses and public restrooms aren’t normally open that early in the morning. So off they go, marching back to the parking lot to change in their car.
Fumbling around in the dark, in a car, before sun up, and trying to get in and out of clothes is kinda like trying to escape a straight jacket. Sometimes the models take so long to change that we’ve missed the sun rise entirely.
To be fair, I’ve also had a few photographers show up for my sunrise photography workshops, dressed like they’re shooting a wedding. Friendly reminder: It’s a beach. Beaches are wet and sandy. Wear shorts and sandals and things you can get sandy and wet.
Lessons learned: Tell the models to show up wearing swimwear under their street clothes. And bring a big beach towel to act as a changing booth on location.
MUST BE JELLYFISH, ‘CUZ JAM DON’T STING LIKE THAT
Most of us from Chicago don’t worry about jellyfish on a daily basis. There aren’t any jellies in Lake Michigan, and we do have more pressing concerns here in the murder capital of the US. So at my first beach shoots in Miami, I learned not to ask models to just jump in the water without checking first. Apparently there’s things called sharks, coral, rip tides, and other kinds of nastiness us frozen Midwestern folks never think about. Kudos go to model Jocelyn Binder for being a trooper and bravely wading into water full of stinging jelly fish. As well as her attempts to roll around seductively on a beach littered with their washed up remains. Kudos also go to the Clone Stamp and Healing Brush tools in Photoshop, for making those ugly blobs of goo mysteriously vanish from the final edits. But let’s keep that a secret.
Lesson learned: Expand your mind. It’s a big world out there. Research your locations as much as possible.
Carl Sandberg must have been smoking something funny when he wrote, “The fog rolls in on little cat feet.” I can assure you, there is nothing catlike about a wall of gray fog so thick you can’t see your own hand in front of your face. It can get so bad that even items in closed bags are soaking wet. This is the one and only scenario where I will give up and turn around. Game over, time to go home and get some bonus sleep.
SOMETIMES THE SUNRISE NEVER RISES
Last, but not least: chance favors the prepared mind. I’ve learned the hard way that there is no such thing as waiting for the the right light, or right time. Grab your shots when you can, because you may never get another chance. A perfect example is this image of model Jax Turyna, freezing her butt off on a Chicago beach.
September is normally one of the hottest months here in the Windy City. But then again, I did mention before that weather can be bipolar. And this particular summer morning was the coldest beach shoot I’ve ever done. Every step we took from the parking lot to the lakefront seemed to get colder, and windier. Poor Jax was standing barefoot on freezing sand during the shoot, and hiding under blankets and towels in between shots to stay warm.
A decade of professional experience led me to conclude: this sucks. So I made the most of every shutter click, including the lighting test-shots. I don’t think we got even ten minutes of photography time in before heading back to the car to warm up. We have no idea if the sun ever rose above the horizon that day… we were long gone by then.
Even my beach shoots in “sunny” Los Angeles have been freakishly cold. At a photo shoot in Malibu, it was a good thing the model brought her boyfriend along because in a pinch, boyfriends make excellent warming blankets. Every few minutes, we’d have him hug his model girlfriend to provide some badly needed body heat and keep her blood pumping.
Fortunately, things always work out for the best. Jax’s frozen beach experience (and my lighting test shots) resulted in images appearing on Fox TV. My California icicle model has had her images published as well.
And what about me? Well, I got to see seals in the wild at Malibu. So, it was a total win/win/win for everyone.
Lessons learned: Goose bumps are one of the most difficult issues to fix in post-production. Pictures lie, because you can’t always tell what the weather was like by looking at a pretty shot of a nice beach. And sometimes the sunrise… never rises.